A blue telescope focuses on a spiraling object in the air. A blog post on "Cognitive Focus" by Imogeb Dickie.

Case 1:  An astronomer, hereafter “A,” is compiling a report from the data delivered by a telescope focused on object in the night sky. has verified that the telescope is both focused and working as it should. The telescope delivers a stream of data: detection of motion; detection of fluctuating temperature; and so on. compiles her report: “It’s moving. Its temperature is fluctuating between such-and-such values . . . ” Now consider a question: Is there some object A’s report is about? I take this question to have an obvious answer. The report is about o—the object on which the telescope is focused. But why is this the case?

Dickie, 223


Paper and the Author

The paper is a chapter in a part of a volume, Singular Thought and Mental Files, published in February 2020 by Oxford University Press.

The beginning of the chapter provides a unified argument against causal and descriptive theories of reference and aboutness. It proposes that an aboutness-fixing relation can create a “cognitive focus” on a particular object of thought. In the second part of the chapter, Dickie argues that a “singular thought” is a thought made available through this cognitive focus relation and used to further the discussion regarding descriptive names. Lastly, an Appendix explains why, though the proposal has been referred to as a “mental files” proposal, it is better not to use that term.

Imogen Dickie is a Philosophy Professor at the University of Toronto (as of October 2023)

Access the chapter here: “Cognitive Focus” by Imogen Dickie

Paper Relevance:

The paper examines semantics and reference, examining how our thoughts and language connect with the world. While there are causal or descriptive accounts of reference, Dickie provides a ‘cognitive focus’ account that emphasizes the role of a perceptual link to ordinary objects.

Background Concepts:

Some Theories of Reference (Basic Characterization)

Descriptivist Theories of Reference: Traditional descriptivism suggests that reference is fixed by a set of descriptions associated with a term. For instance, the reference to “Albert Einstein” is fixed by descriptions like “the physicist who developed the theory of relativity.” According to descriptivism, knowing the descriptions that fix the reference is part of knowing the meaning of the name.

Causal Theories of Reference
: These theories, developed by philosophers like Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam, propose that a name’s reference is determined by some original act of naming, where a name is “baptized” and passed down through a communication chain. For example, in English, “water” refers to H₂O because of an initial act linking the word to the substance, which is maintained through subsequent use.

The Role of Mental States: Philosophers like Imogen Dickie argues that cognitive focus—our mental attention to an object or concept—plays a crucial role in reference fixing. For Dickie, successfully referring requires not just uttering a name but also having one’s mind appropriately oriented toward the object of reference.

In her paper, Dickie pushes back on descriptivist and causal theories of reference.


“Aboutness” is a term in philosophy that refers to the relation between thoughts, words, or sentences and the things they are about, known as intentionality in a broader sense. It’s a foundational concept in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and metaphysics because it deals with how our mental states and language relate to objects and states of affairs.

Singular Thought

A thought directed at one target or object can be described as a “singular thought.”

Singular thought is often considered as thoughts that are object-dependent (Dickie holds this view), but it can be conceptualized otherwise.

Propriety Means of Justification

According to Dickie, the proprietary means of justification is defined by its overriding status. It trumps all other means of justification in establishing beliefs. For instance, regarding ordinary objects, a perceptual source of information trumps a testimonial source of information.

Cognitive Focus

This is a term coined by Dickie.

[C]ognitive focus: a body of beliefs is about an object iff its proprietary means of justification
converges on the object, making the object the unique thing whose properties the subject will be unlucky to get wrong and not merely lucky to get right if she forms beliefs justified in this way.

Dickie 234

More simply, cognitive focus is a technical term that refers to a mental state where the subject’s attention is directed so that it singles out an object for thought.

Mental Files

Mental files are cognitive constructs that help individuals keep track of individuals in their environment, including people, objects, and abstract entities. These files are essential for singular thought, allowing us to think about and refer to specific individuals.

See here for more details.

Aim of the Paper:

Dickie attempts to give an alternative account of the concept of aboutness; she argues that aboutness is a “cognitive focus,” and it is a “singular thought.” (See above for the definition of ‘cognitive focus’ and ‘singular thought’).

In Appendix, Dickie addresses why she has not framed her account of singular thought in terms of ‘mental files.’ She concludes that it is better to focus on the process, the cognitive activity, about the object and its derivative beliefs, and the process she advocates for is a pure process, four-dimensionalism.

Paper Reconstruction:

This is a long, dense paper, so I will not address every part. Specifically, I will not write on the ‘descriptive mediating thoughts’ part of her discussion (pp. 238-244).

Part I: Reference and Semantics (Core of the paper)

In “Cognitive Focus,” in Singular Thought and Mental Files, Imogen Dickie attempts to prove a biconditional relation between aboutness and cognitive focus to show that cognitive focus and aboutness are the same, and they are singular thoughts. 

There is aboutness about an object iff there is justificatory convergence of a specific kind. Her justification entails weeding out rationally relevant defeaters that the agent is expected to be on guard against, and the subject will be unlucky to get wrong and not merely lucky to get right about some belief about the unique object.

Aboutness Implies Cognitive Focus

First, Dickie defends that aboutness implies cognitive focus. She accounts for beliefs about ordinary objects; thus, truths are facts about an object. Truth and aboutness relate this way: Since the truth depends on the facts about the object O, our object of thought is about O iff we get the facts about O correctly. Truth and justification relate this way: Justification is truth conductive by eliminating every rationally relevant circumstance where O is not F.  

Thus, one having <a is F> thought has a belief about O after eliminating rationally relevant circumstances where O is not F, and if one gets the property of O wrong, the error will be due to rationally irrelevant circumstances, which the agent was not expected to be on guard against.

Cognitive Focus Implies Aboutness

Second, Dickie develops the other direction of the biconditional, where cognitive focus implies aboutness. If subject S maintains a single belief yielding from a proprietary means of justification, and the justification converges on an ordinary object O, there are three possible results. The belief is about O, it is about O* differing from O, or it is about nothing. She argues for eliminating the latter two possibilities to show that the belief is about O.

If O and O* are non-duplicate ordinary objects, it is common for the two to have recognizable differences that the proprietary means of justification can notice. Moreover, the proprietary means of justification can only converge on one object unless qualitatively duplicate objects exist. Dickie argues that it is rare to observe qualitatively duplicates of ordinary objects adjacent to one another; hence, we are not expected to be on guard against qualitatively duplicates of ordinary objects.

Subsequently, Dickie rules out the possibility that the belief is about nothing, but I will not expound on this part.

Cognitive Focus is Singular Thought 

Finally, Dickie attempts to show that cognitive focus, thus aboutness, is singular thought and object dependent. She provides two sets of truth statements about an object, progressing from a general thought to a singular one.

The First Progression:

  1. The belief is true iff the conditions for such a belief to be true in the situation in which it is held are met.
  2. The belief is true iff there is some object which meets the aboutness-fixing conditions for a perceptual demonstrative belief formed in the situation, and this object satisfies the condition that an object must satisfy if a belief ascribing roundness to it is to be true.
  3. The belief is true iff the perceptual link that underpins proprietary justification for the body of beliefs of which it is a part is focused on the object, and this object is round.
  4. The belief is true iff is round
    (where is the orange you are looking at).
Dickie, 235-6

The Second Progression:

  1. The belief is true iff the conditions for such a belief to be true in the situation in which it is held are met.
  2. The belief is true iff some object is introduced as relevant to its truth or falsity by the description “the F,” and this object satisfies “G.”
  3. The belief is true iff there is a unique object that is F, and this object is G.
    (Supposing that is the unique . . . )
  4. The belief is true iff is G.
Dickie, 236

She provides the first progression to show that a statement can express a purely worldly condition. Then, she constructs the second progression to show that a statement can have purely worldly conditions without picking out a particular object. Concerning the “F is G” statement, the belief is true iff there is a unique object that is F, and the same object is G. This fails to be about a particular object because either such object may not exist or multiple unique objects may fit the description. 

On the other hand, the belief is true iff O is F, and O is G is about a particular object. Cognitive focus is related to object-dependent thought, picking up a unique object O and performing a proprietary means of justification. Making the distinction through the demonstration of a set of progressing statements allows for three conditions:

  1. No purely worldly conditions: These cases lack aboutness.
  2. Purely worldly conditions with necessary and sufficient conditions that account for a general thought.
  3. Purely worldly conditions that pick out a particular object.

Similarly, beliefs containing descriptive names can fail to be about an object even though the object is the satisfier of the associated description. Therefore, as Dickie shows in cases, satisfying some properties can be about nothing, or aboutness shifts over time as mediating description changes. General thought requires necessary and sufficient conditions that some general object satisfies. However, there may be no such and such world, or multiple objects may satisfy a condition. She thus argues that the relational model, where one stands in a relation of cognitive focus, better accounts for people’s cognition and belief formation.

Part II: Metaphysics and Justification (in Appendix)

In the appendix of “Cognitive Focus,” in Singular Thought and Mental Files, Imogen Dickie addresses why she has not framed her account of singular thought in terms of ‘mental files.’  Dickie claims that the mental file framework is motivated by cases which she provided in Table 11.1 in her paper. She argues that it is a standard framework among philosophers. Still, the commitment to understanding mental files in a preceding way commits one to a pure process, four-dimensionalism, where the process is ontologically fundamental, and the continuant is the derivative of this process.

First, Dickie defends that mental files are a process by applying the object/process distinction made by Michael Ayers. She argues: A mental file is a process because it has parts and itself can be a part. For instance, the “Russel” file is part of the “Bertie/Russel” file. “Russel the peace activist” is part of the “Russel” file. In other words, the “Russel” file has parts and is a part of another file.

By examples of humans and storms, Dickie shows that process integrates into broader processes just as its parts are parts of another part; an ordinary object does not function in this manner. Since mental files integrate into large files, it is a process, not an ordinary object, in the four-dimensionalism framework.

Second, she rejects the alternative account, the ur-elements conception of four-dimensionalism, where the fundamental ontological units are temporal stages. According to the account, the sequence of temporal stages constructs a continuant. Therefore, according to this conception, a mental file is a sequence of a file’s temporal states, where the temporal state of a file is a file at some time t. Dickie argues that the preceding view is implausible because it is questionable whether we can discuss beliefs held at an instance.

Additionally, it commits us to speak of mental files, at instant t, as they evolve. If so, we cannot hold on to the idea that the attributes of the prior file take explanatory precedence over the more extended files that it constitutes since files keep updating. Instead, one must consider the ontologically fundamental process. As Dickie explains, one cannot understand Hamlet by picking out some play segments. Similarly, one cannot understand mental files by narrowing one’s attention into an instant or a segment; there must be a sufficient interval.

Dickie suggests that it is less ambiguous to speak of aboutness in terms of the underlying activity instead of the term mental files. Put another way, talk of mental files introduces more abstraction and confusion without adding any explanatory value. She concludes: It is better to focus on the process, the cognitive activity, about the object and its derivative beliefs, and the process she advocates for is pure process, four-dimensionalism. Therefore, Dickie has not framed her account of singular thought in terms of ‘mental files.’  

A Critical Note

On the Epistemic/Semantic Argument

Suppose two persons, separated by a distance, cognitively focus on some O and independently go through a proprietary justification. There is one and only object O (from an objective God-like perspective), but the two do not know it. Consequently, they believe different things about O. Contradictorily, one reports a triangle-like object, and the other reports a circular object; therefore, they cannot agree that they are seeing the same object. A slight difference in observing angle changes perception. Object O is both curvy and triangular, like an ice cream cone. The two parted, each concluding they were looking at a different object. 

How can we know that they pick out the same object, O, given that they partially describing the object they are referring to? Dickie will reply that error is permissible if one follows a propriety justification. But if perceptual link trumps testimony, the two will not take each other’s testimonies seriously. Such cases undermine the social role of reference. The cognitive focus seems to lack the social dimension of convergence or agreement that descriptivists or causal theorists have.

My critique is that Dickie puts too much emphasis on perceptual links when most of our justifications and reference formation are done through social heuristics. Also, why is my perceptual link more reliable than someone else? When we all have similar perceptual capabilities, it is difficult to assess when my perceptual link trumps testimonies that were derived by perceptual links of others. 

On Metaphysics:

On page 249, Dickie states, “[F]or the purposes of this Appendix, the specific details about the process that underlies a mental file are not important.” However, comparing pure process and ur-element four-dimensionalism is challenging without her expounding on the process (this point should be a desideratum for her subsequent paper).

While Dickie proposes that the pure process is like the play of Hamlet, there is a relevant difference – the beginning and end of Hamlet are apparent, but the process of our mental files is not. Some beliefs emerge and disappear inconspicuously. Other beliefs are relevant for a certain time; they vanish for a period and reemerge. Another set of beliefs persists for years without unfolding. Finally, any process can be interrupted.  

If a set of mental files at an instance is ontologically fundamental, we may still speak of processes. The interval at time tand ty is a process. Given that both conceptions seem to have problems committing to a pure process is premature. The commitment to pure process unnecessarily abandons explanatory resources, if any.

Does it not make sense to speak of mental files at an instance in some cases? Dickie thinks that there is not. However, closely examining my mental files at t is possible and common. For instance, enumerating my Russell mental files at times sounds like a common reflective exercise. This alone can inform epistemic judgment in some instances.  



  • Dickie, Imogen, ‘Cognitive Focus’, in Rachel Goodman, James Genone, and Nick Kroll (eds), Singular Thought and Mental Files (Oxford, 2020; online edn, Oxford Academic, 19 Mar. 2020), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198746881.003.0011, accessed 5 Nov. 2023.

*Disclaimer: This article is a creative interpretation and synthesis work, drawing inspiration from multiple sources. While efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, readers are encouraged to consult the source material for a comprehensive understanding.

**Please note that I often write the Critical Note (constructive criticism) section after posting the article. If the section is left blank, it is intentional.

I use the term “Critical” in a broad academic sense, encompassing thorough examination, balanced evaluation, and thoughtful interpretation. It is not limited to pointing out flaws or offering negative criticism.

***I reserve the right to edit this page at my convenience.

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